H. Robert Horvitz on Greatest Scientific Accomplishment
  H. Robert Horvitz     Biography    
Recorded: 09 Apr 2001

Greatest accomplishment could be thought about in different ways. So, what gave me the most pleasure was probably simply getting experiments to work in the early days when I had no idea if my fingers could generate anything that was interpretable, let alone interesting. So I consider all of that, under Jim’s direct or indirect tutelage, certainly amongst my greatest accomplishments.

If one asks about specific contributions and what would the world look at today—and I like to think that maybe tomorrow there will be something new to look at—I would say the area of programmed cell death, or apoptosis, is probably what many people associate me and my laboratory with. We’ve worked out a molecular genetic basis for the process and when we started, most people not only didn’t think about it, most people in biology essentially thought that cells die because they are unhappy. A notion that there could be an active suicide program and there could be dedicated genes that cause cells to kill themselves really wasn’t something that people thought about at all. And so I think the contribution first to the fact that there is an active process of cell death, programmed cell death, apoptosis, is a biological process. I think that was a major contribution, and the finding that it was a process of suicide was an important contribution. The elucidation of a pathway that has proved to be conserved amongst organisms as diverse as worms and people and that has now led to a way of thinking about molecular mechanisms for killing cells. And applications of that knowledge, basically in the pharmaceutical industry leading to now attempts at perturbing this process, intervening with the molecular players that we’ve identified their human counterparts. I think those are probably areas in which I would consider major contributions.

H. Robert Horvitz received his Ph.D. in 1974 from Harvard University, under the tutelage of Jim Watson. He joined the MIT Department of Biology faculty in 1978, and was named David Koch Professor of Biology in 2000. He is also Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and was appointed Investigator at the McGovern Institute in 2001.

Horvitz is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and a recipient of the Gairdner Foundation International Award, the Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. Prize from the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation and the Bristol-Myers Squibb Award for Distinguished Achievement in Neuroscience. In 2002, he was award the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine with Sydney Brenner and John Sulston “for their discoveries concerning 'genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death'."

Horvitz currently studies how genes control the development of the nervous system and how the nervous system controls behavior. He has elucidated a molecular genetic pathway for programmed cell death (apoptosis), which is fundamental to nervous system development in all animals.